Premier Li Peng: Loyal Party Man, Champion of China’s Old Guard

Times Staff Writer

In the rhetoric of the angriest of the pro-democracy protesters who have swarmed through the streets of Beijing in recent weeks, Chinese Premier Li Peng is a new Hitler, a fascist whose sole redeeming feature is such profound incompetence that he may be unable to hold onto power.

For the old guard that still controls China--the generation of fading revolutionaries such as senior leader Deng Xiaoping and economic planner Chen Yun--the 60-year-old Li is a “good boy” they have known since his childhood, a potential successor who sometimes seems to be the only younger leader who really likes them and pays them the respect they feel they deserve.

To those Communist Party cadres and ordinary citizens who have been shaken by the explosive speed of China’s economic and social change over the past decade, Li symbolizes familiar certainties, both the good and the bad. In a country that lacks an economic infrastructure and a developed market system, he is a skilled technician and administrator who understands big projects and central planning.


Li himself holds his cards tight, preferring to say simply that he is a very loyal party man.

Asked once at a press conference whether study in Moscow had left him with pro-Soviet sentiments, Li replied: “I am a Chinese and a member of the Chinese Communist Party, and I act in accordance with the line of the party and the interests of the motherland.” Li seemed to feel he had answered the question.

Proves Adaptable

When the party line calls for market-oriented reforms, openness to the outside world and a relaxation of political controls, Li calls for reform, openness and relaxation.

When the party line calls for dictatorship, Li is also there to answer the call.

And so it was that on the evening of May 19, when Communist Party elders led by the 84-year-old Deng decided that a month of escalating pro-democracy protests could no longer be tolerated, it was Li who stood before a meeting of party, government and military leaders to make the most important speech of his life.

“It has become more and more clear that the very few people who attempt to create turmoil want to reach their political goals--negating the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system and violating the constitution--goals they could not reach through democratic and legal channels,” Li declared in a speech laced with jargon from a harsher era that many in China had hoped was gone.

“They spread rumors and smear and hurt party and government leaders,” Li continued. “They concentrate their attack on comrade Deng Xiaoping, who has made great contributions to China’s opening to the outside world. . . . Their purpose is to overthrow the people’s government elected by the National People’s Congress and totally negate the people’s democratic dictatorship. Under such circumstances we are forced to take resolute and decisive measures to put an end to the turmoil.”

Li’s angry words were repeatedly rebroadcast over government-controlled loudspeakers in Tian An Men Square, where the pro-democracy student protesters who touched off the political crisis responded with hoots and jeers.

The students were frightened, but did not yield ground, as Li continued:

“I urgently appeal on behalf of the party Central Committee and the State Council: To those students now on hunger strike in Tian An Men Square to end the fasting immediately, leave the square, receive medical treatment and recover their health as soon as possible.

“To students and people in all walks of life to immediately stop all demonstrations and give no more so-called support to the fasting students in the interest of humanitarianism. Whatever the intent, further ‘support’ will push the fasting students to desperation.

“I now call on the whole party, the whole army and the whole nation to make concerted efforts and act immediately at all posts so as to stop the turmoil and stabilize the situation.”

A few hours later, Li declared martial law in Beijing and called on the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army to enter the capital. Students and residents responded by swarming into the streets to erect barricades of buses and trucks, which succeeded in stopping an army unwilling to use force against its own people.

As days passed without resolution of the standoff between the army and the people of Beijing, Li looked like a humiliated and incompetent leader whose days in office were numbered.

The student protesters and others who despise Li were not too surprised.

Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who is Li’s rival and the apparent loser in the current crisis, had become premier and then party chief after first building a solid record of accomplishment masterminding impressive economic development in central China’s Sichuan province during the late 1970s.

But among wide segments of Chinese society it is assumed that Li, an expert in hydroelectric engineering, became premier not because of any special competence but because of his unsurpassed connections among old guard revolutionaries.

Informally Adopted by Chou

The orphaned son of a revolutionary martyr, Li was informally adopted by the late Premier Chou En-lai and his wife, Deng Yingchao. Today, Deng Yingchao still exercises influence in the highest circles of the Communist Party.

Li thus is viewed by many as the head of what cynical Chinese call the “princes’ faction"--the hundreds of middle-aged Chinese who exercise power and enjoy wealth because they are the children of high officials.

This is one reason Li is hated by the protesters, who have lampooned him in banners and street chants during demonstrations.

“Chou En-lai, where are you? Your son hasn’t gone along with you!” students chanted in ridicule of Li during a demonstration earlier this week. “Mama Deng come quick! Bring your little boy Peng home and slap him in the face three times! Pia! Pia! Pia!”

It is not entirely clear, however, that Li is as incompetent as his detractors charge.

Over the past few days, it has become apparent that the main purpose of calling troops to Beijing was not to patrol the streets of the capital but to ensure that Deng Xiaoping and Li held overwhelming military superiority over troops already stationed in the Beijing area that were suspected of having loyalties to Zhao.

When Li re-emerged Thursday after five days of crisis to appear on state-run television--with the People’s Liberation Army still hunkered down on the outskirts of the capital, unable to enforce martial law--the premier looked supremely self-confident and pleased as he delivered a speech to three new ambassadors and, more important, to the nation.

“The Chinese government . . . is stable and capable,” Li said, smiling like the proverbial cat that had dined on the canary.

The current crisis in China is at one level a straightforward power struggle among ambitious individuals maneuvering for power in anticipation of Deng’s eventual retirement or death.

But it is also an ideological battle pitting enthusiastic reformers favoring rapid political and economic change--who have been gathered around Zhao--against a coalition of more cautious reformers and elderly hard-liners now gathered around Deng and Li, who want to maintain a strict party dictatorship while only gradually adjusting China’s economy to allow a greater role for incentives and market forces.

At another level, this is a fight between a younger generation profoundly influenced by the West, especially the United States, which dreams of rapid change enabling China to duplicate the successes of its East Asian neighbors, and an older generation of leaders such as Li who have benefited from China’s system and believe that it merely needs adjustments such as greater use of incentives, market forces and technology to make it more efficient.

While there is no doubt that Zhao and his allies favor much more rapid, deep and wide-ranging change than do Li and Deng, this does not mean that Li favors a rigid, traditional Soviet-style command economy, or that a victory by Li in the current struggle would mean an end to China’s policies of economic reform.

Li’s primary concern is to maintain political and economic stability and to develop China’s woefully inadequate infrastructure, including transportation, communications, port facilities and the supply of raw materials and energy.

Rapid economic integration is already under way between capitalist Hong Kong and south China’s booming Guangdong province, large numbers of visitors from capitalist Taiwan are traveling to the Chinese mainland, foreign corporations from advanced industrial countries are establishing a growing presence in China and there is a near-total collapse of Communist ideology--as illustrated by the support offered to student protesters by the people of Beijing and even journalists at the state-run media. There still is no force in sight likely to fundamentally derail China’s modernization drive.

Li was born in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, in 1928. His father, Li Shuoxun, was an early member of the Communist Party, a close associate of Chou and a leader of the Communists’ famous Nanchang Uprising of 1927. Li Shuoxun was captured by the rival Nationalist Party and executed in 1931.

Li lived with relatives in Chengdu until 1939, when Chou and his wife discovered where he was. They had Li brought to Yanan, the revolutionary Communist base in China’s northwest, where they helped look after him.

After further schooling in China, Li went to the Soviet Union to study at the Moscow Power Industry Institute from 1948 to 1954, where he became head of the Assn. of Chinese Students in the Soviet Union. Li returned in 1955 to China, where he assumed a series of positions in the power industry.

In 1966, the year that Mao Tse-tung launched the chaotic Cultural Revolution, Li was brought to Beijing to help ensure the stability of the capital’s power supply.

Li rose to become the minister of electric power in 1981 and a vice premier in 1983. He was named acting premier in late 1987 and confirmed in that position in April, 1988. He is married, with two sons and one daughter.

At a press conference in April, held in conjunction with this year’s session of the National People’s Congress, Li appeared confident. He ventured several humorous remarks, including an initial comment that the assembled journalists had already attended press conferences with so many officials that they probably had no questions left for him.

Li also defended China’s go-slow approach to political reform.

“Democracy is a good thing, but it must arise from conditions within a country,” Li said, specifically rejecting the idea that China should do more to imitate the Soviet Union’s new political openness. “If the democratic process is carried out in haste, or excessively, then it will certainly affect our stability and unity. If stability and unity are undermined, that will impair our work of reform and national construction.”